Cautious Optimism in Myanmar

You may not have heard of Yangon, Myanmar. For most of recent history, it has been known as Rangoon, Burma - the former capital of a country that has been ruled by a military junta for nearly 52 years. As Myanmar hurtles down the road of reform towards democracy, the country is bursting with entrepreneurs eager to explore newfound opportunities in a society that has been shut off from the rest of the world for decades.

Our team joined one such delegation of entrepreneurs to the country this past month, hosted by the Aspen Institute and the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

No matter where you are coming from, Yangon is far away. There are few direct flights into the city and none of them are from outside Asia. Our trip from Washington, D.C. took us on a 6-hour flight to London followed by a second flight to Helsinki, a 10-hour flight to Bangkok, and finally a one-hour flight to Yangon.

Driving from the Yangon International Airport to our hotel downtown, our delegation of social entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, and US State Department officials passed a florescent red, 25 foot wide billboard advertising the rollout of Ooredoo, a Doha-based mobile phone service that will launch this summer. Just a few years ago, such a sight would have been unfathomable here. Last year, the Myanmar government awarded the company, along with Norway-based Telenor, a bid to operate in the country. For now, only a severely overextended government-run network exists. Residents pay between $100 and $2,000 to buy a limited-supply SIM card on the black market.

Myanmar's telecommunications transition is much like many other transitions the country has gone through. No longer does Coca-Cola need to be smuggled over the Thai border, nor do newspapers need to go through government censors before they can be published. All of this is changing and the world is looking on eagerly to see where the country will be in a few years' time.

To the international community, Myanmar is seen as a simple dichotomy: "the Junta and the Lady." In reality, the country is an constantly overlapping array of powerful institutions. All of them want simultaneously to make dramatic reforms and at the same time to maintain the status quo.

On our first day, we met with members of the country's ruling party that has ruled continuously since 1962. While steps have been taken to separate the military from government ministers, the latter are usually retired generals. And, while many of these former generals are guilty of egregious human rights violations, they are also the same people who have opened the doors to democratization and reform. The ministers spoke fervently of liberalization and of opening up to the outside world. While most of Myanmar's trade has been with China, the prevailing government rhetoric is that they would like to diversify their foreign partners and need only to find the willing partners to do so with.

On day two we met with "the Lady" - 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. As the daughter of Myanmar's revered founder and the leader of the country's liberal opposition, she has spent the majority of the past 26 years under house arrest. In 2010 she was released.

While optimistic about the changes that have taken place, she was hesitant to believe that they would continue indefinitely without significant internal and external pressure. She put her hopes in the success of free and fair elections in 2015, and said they will provide a key indicator of the country's future. With the fervent hopes of a lifelong pragmatic activist, she cautioned businesses from fully investing before the next chapter in Myanmar's history has been written. She instead shifted the focus to the social impact of businesses looking to expand into the country, asking what they can do to address the poverty, healthcare, and access to education in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi also spoke of the worsening situation in Rakhine State located in the west. There, where the majority of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority lives, the government has been accused of systematically cutting off aid and keeping the areas purposely underdeveloped. Some human rights group have gone so far as to call this a genocide. And, in a country where the Muslim minority faces many of the stigmas that Jewish Europeans did in the early 20th century, Myanmar will need courageous leadership to avoid a xenophobic trap. This is singlehandedly the greatest threat to Myanmar's future.